How CIOs can become CEOs: tips from a tech leadership headhunter

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Caroline Sands, Partner and Head of the CIO & Technology Officers Practice at Odgers Berndtson, explains what CIOs need to do if they want to become CEOs. 

When the pandemic struck last year, CIOs found themselves in the hot seat. Suddenly responsible for turning remote-working aspirations into a socially distanced business reality, they shifted entire organisations from office-based work to working from home in a matter of days. For most boards, this scenario very quickly revealed the importance of the CIO and the role that digital technology plays in business continuity. 

Of course, technology leaders have been gaining influence at the executive level for some years, but the pandemic has placed them firmly in the spotlight. This recognition, combined with a greater appetite among boards to adopt digital technology, leads to more opportunities for CIOs to shine and subsequently step up into CEO positions. 

Making the leap from CIO to CEO is no easy task, however. It’s a comparatively small market, CEO turnover is typically slow, and competition is intense. So below, I’ve outlined the areas CIOs should focus on if they’re looking to become CEOs. 

Emphasise your strategic mindset 

There is now a growing expectation for technology to play a greater role in the business, and an increasing number of CEOs see the CIO as a key driver in their business strategy. This is an opportunity that CIOs should capitalise on in order to build relevant experience for any future CEO position. If possible, try to take on responsibilities from your CEO and if your organisational structure permits, play a greater role in specific business units. If you don’t report to the CEO, then find a way of getting into executive meetings and strategy sessions – these will provide invaluable insights into leadership decision making. 

CEOs are commercially minded and can clearly and concisely communicate the business strategy. As a CIO, you need to be able to do the same if you’re to take on a CEO role. This means making sure that you are able to express your technology strategy and roadmaps in terms of outcomes and value for the organisation. Likewise, if you don’t do so already, you should become cognisant of discussing initiatives and new ideas related to value generation and not cost. This will stand you in good stead when it comes to interviewing for CEO roles. 

Broaden you scope beyond technology 

While technology is, without a doubt, playing a more central role in many organisations, it is not the be-all and end-all of a business. Most businesses succeed or fail due to finance and sales. That’s why many CEOs are former CFOs. You, therefore, need to gain experience in the broader business by becoming involved in, for example, new initiatives, product launches, or organisational transformations. 

You can also look outside of the organisation for this kind of experience. Taking on a non-executive director role will provide you with a board perspective you wouldn’t otherwise gain as a CIO. Within the commercial sector, you can find board roles among smaller quoted companies, those backed by private equity, or family-owned businesses. Advisory boards and subsidiary boards are also a good option. 

On the public sector side, you can look at organisations owned by or reporting to the government. These include major infrastructure operators, the NHS, regulators, museums, and other arts institutions. A charity trustee role (while unpaid) is similar and will help develop your network and board skills. 

Network inside and outside of your organisation 

CEO positions do not come around that often and are not always advertised. Therefore, you should invest a good chunk of your time in establishing and building informal and formal relationships both inside and outside of your organisation and across your industry. 

In doing this, you should remember to keep sight of your career objective. Don’t be hesitant about continuously adjusting your network to provide you with the guidance and support you need to achieve the next step. If you don’t feel that your current network will lead to opportunities, then concentrate on building new relationships. 

Likewise, you can contact trusted headhunters. Talking to them will not only provide you with advice about the skills you might be missing and the current CEO market conditions, but it will also place you on their radar. So when they’re working on their next CEO role, you’re more likely to be a consideration. 

Finding a mentor can be another effective way of networking. It will help you build the right skills and experience for a CEO position and give you an insight into what it’s like to be a CEO. But it’s also very likely to give you access to the mentor’s professional network and relationships. 

Finally, try to speak at industry events. You never know who may be watching or whom you may be able to impress. 

Build a strong team 

A CIO’s ability to successfully leverage technology to solve problems and transform organisations makes them ideal CEO candidates. However, you’re only as good as the team around you. Building a high-performing team that can drive the day-to-day operations will have several outcomes. Firstly, it will free you up to take on more responsibility around the business and gain more time with your CEO. Secondly, it’s a valuable proof point that you can use in any interview to demonstrate you can build a strong team – as a CEO, building a strong cadre of executives is crucial. 

What’s more, you can become a mentor yourself and help to cultivate new leaders for your organisation. This will provide you with a unique leadership experience and provide another proof point that you can use to demonstrate your willingness to lead others and your expertise in doing so. 

Ensure you have the right leadership qualities and attributes 

The pandemic has transformed the traditional leadership paradigm. Boards are now looking for CEOs who can drive growth and new business in a world where even the next three months are far from certain. At the same time as grappling with the uncertainty of post-pandemic markets, they’ll expect you to have a clear plan when it comes to things like inclusion and diversity, sustainability, and hybrid working. 

You’ll need to bring a fresh perspective, have a natural capacity to innovate and the ability to influence change at the board level through effective leadership and communication. As a person, you’ll need to have huge amounts of resilience combined with low ego. You should be a visionary who embraces change as an opportunity and can help bring others on that journey. Good CEOs also understand the risks associated with the decisions they make and the impact those decisions could have on others. What’s more, they take ownership for right and wrong choices. 

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The post-pandemic environment offers a lot of opportunities for CIOs to advance to CEO. Though it’s worth acknowledging the strong competition from CHROs and CFOs, both have been key players in navigating organisations through Covid-19. The COO often plays second in command to many CEOs, making them viable candidates for the top job. However, by considering the five recommendations above, CIOs can easily compete with these roles for the CEO positions out there. 

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An image of CIO, Business, How CIOs can become CEOs: tips from a tech leadership headhunter

Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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